The domestic slave trade within the United States did not begin, as is often assumed, with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. It originated half a century earlier in the 1760s, and overlapped with the trade from Africa. It was extensive even between 1787 and 1807, a period in which more Africans were forced to these shores than in any two decades in North American history. The domestic trade continued into the 1860s and displaced some 1.2 million men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom were born in America.
At the cost of immense human suffering, this forced migration unlocked a great reservoir of labor and made possible the rapid expansion of the “Peculiar Institution.” The domestic slave trade brought misery, separating families and increasing the climate of insecurity in the community.
It also distributed the African-American population throughout the South in a migration that greatly surpassed in volume the transatlantic slave trade to North America.
Exporters and Importers
The first key factor in creating the domestic slave trade was an insatiable demand for labor from expanding plantation regions in the South. The second essential element was the availability of a ready supply of enslaved people – a supply made possible because North American slave numbers, unlike those in the rest of the Americas, grew by natural increase (that is, numbers of births exceeded numbers of deaths). By the 1730s, the enslaved populations of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia were rapidly growing. A decade or so later, even those of colonies south of Virginia began to experience continuous and rapid natural increase. In the latter colonies, though, the expansion of the plantation regime was so great that the importation of enslaved men, women, and children was seen as essential.
In the 1760s, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts were exporting some of their bondspeople to the Southern colonies. This trend is verified for example by evidence in the South Carolina Gazette, where advertisements referred to numerous men and women who had been brought from these Northern colonies. In the 1770s, slave traders, also called speculators, regularly advertised in the Boston Gazette for “healthy slaves, . . . Male or Female who have been some years in the Country, of twenty Years of Age or under.” As slavery declined in the mid-Atlantic and northern states, owners began to sell their slaves to traders who moved them further south. The scale of the trade from the North is suggested by alarm in South Carolina that northern blacks might undermine the discipline of the local enslaved population. In 1792, for example, citizens of Beaufort, South Carolina, petitioned the state legislature complaining about the “notorious” practice of Northerners, who “have for a number of years past been in the habit of shipping to these Southern states, slaves who are scandalously infamous and incorrigible.”
The export trade from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia was very well established by the 1780s. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Charles C. Pinckney explained that Virginia “will gain by stopping importation [from Africa]. Her slaves will rise in value and she has more than she wants.” South Carolina and Georgia whites called out for slaves – and newspaper advertisements of 1787 show that Virginia was ready to supply them. The trader Austin Moses advertised in Richmond, Virginia, for: “One hundred Negroes from 20 to 30 years old for which a good price will be given. They are to be sent out of state, therefore we shall not be particular respecting character of any of them – hearty and well made is all that is necessary.”
Moses was one of many who regularly sent enslaved Virginians to the expanding plantation regions further south and west.
The interregional movement of the enslaved population was made up of two elements. The substantial majority – from 60 to 70 percent (or 1.2 million people) – migrated by the long-distance domestic slave trade, while the rest were part of planter migrations. In the latter case, planters looking for new opportunities moved all or most of their slaves together to work new western land.
By the 1790s, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia had become the main exporting areas, the bulk of their “shipments” going to Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and the sugar-planting regions of Louisiana. But by the 1820s the Carolinas and Kentucky were exporting more people than they were importing.
Thirty years later, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama had joined the ranks of net exporters. From 1760 until the Civil War, the number of men, women, and children traded to the South and West increased substantially during each decade, with the exception of the 1840s when numbers slackened.
Some historians have argued that selling south occurred because land in the exporting states was exhausted. According to this argument, “soil exhaustion” meant that agriculture was in decline in the exporting states, and those states could not support a growing slave population. This traditional argument seems to misrepresent the true situation, however. In fact, farming still flourished in the exporting states, but selling people offered the chance of further profit. For example, in South Carolina during the 1850s, 65,000 African Americans were transported out of state, but still the state’s cotton production rose by 50,000 bales and its enslaved population increased by seventeen thousand.
The trade was motivated purely by profit, and enslaved men, women, and children went to markets that offered the highest profits. Some were sold at major urban marketplaces such as New Orleans and Natchez, but most were dispatched directly to scattered rural communities.
In 1846, speculator T. W. Burton wrote from Lowndes County, Alabama, “There is a vast quantity of negroes in the Market here” and traders were offering slaves in every village in the county. The area, he said, was “full of negroes.” Moving on to Mississippi, Burton found that “there is negroes [offered by traders] all through the state.” Most traders covered several counties in seeking out buyers. A fellow speculator reported that Dr. Thomas C. Weatherly, a typical trader, “Lives in his tents. He told me he sold ten negroes last week at fair prices. [As a means of meeting customers] he is following the counties round attending the courts.”
Modes of Transportation
The great majority of forced migrants trekked southward chained together in “coffles” . Sella Martin described such a convoy in which he and his mother had made “that dreaded and despairing journey [from North Carolina] to Georgia”:
A long row of men chained two-and-two together, called a “coffle” and numbering about thirty persons, was the first to march forth from the “pen,” then came the quiet slaves – that is, those who were tame and degraded – then came the unmarried women, or those without children; after these came the children who were able to walk; and following them came mothers with their infants and young children in their arms.
Charles Ball was marched from Maryland to South Carolina in a fifty-person coffle:
The women were tied together with a rope, about the size of a bed cord, which was tied like a halter round the neck of each; but the men . . . were very differently caparisoned. A strong iron collar was closely fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks. A chain of iron about a hundred feet long was passed through the hasp of each padlock, except at the two ends, where the hasps of the padlocks passed through a link of the chain. In addition to this we were handcuffed in pairs.
Major traders moved south with “droves” of up to three hundred people. These terrible journeys usually took seven to eight weeks and covered up to six hundred miles. En route, the captives would sleep in tents or other rough accommodations. On reaching their destinations, the traders would often remove the chains, as they prepared their “product'” for market, while wielding guns and whips to keep the people under control.
Though coffles were the primary means of transport, as railroad routes became more extensive they were also used. In 1856, Lyman Abbot, a Northern visitor to the South found that “every train south has slaves on board . . . twenty or more, and [has] a “nigger car,” which is generally also the smokers’ car, and sometimes the baggage car.” Sometimes buyers, as they made their purchases in ones or twos, sent people down the line to be collected by their trading partners.
Traders also moved the gangs of people along waterways – the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Natchez and New Orleans; the Alabama River from Montgomery to Mobile, and then on by sea to New Orleans.
The coastal shipping route was of importance in supplying part of New Orleans’s slave importations, but the coastal traffic probably made up only 5 percent of the total interstate trade, and even with New Orleans about half came by land and river.
Those arriving by sea originated mostly from Chesapeake ports (Washington, Baltimore and the Virginia cities of Alexandria, Richmond and Petersburg) and from Charleston, South Carolina. Specially equipped ships made month-long journeys carrying up to 150 people from these ports to New Orleans and Natchez.
Joshua Levitt, an anti-slavery clergyman, gave this description in 1834:
The hold was appropriated to the slaves, and is divided into two compartments. The after-hold will carry about eighty women, and the other about one hundred men. On one side [of the hold] were two platforms running the whole length; one raised a few inches, and the other half way up the deck. They were about five or six feet deep. On these the slaves lie, as close as they can be stowed.
The Victims of the trade
During the century of the domestic trade, roughly equal numbers of males and females were sold away. The exception was the Louisiana sugar plantations, whose population made up some 6 percent of the nation’s enslaved. Importation to New Orleans, where many sugar planters bought their enslaved workers, was about 58 percent male, and traders sent very few young children to that market. The exhausting labor in the cane fields took an exceptionally heavy toll on the laborers’ health, and the demands of the sugar planters meant that the southern Louisiana market tended to import particularly strong workers.
The shortage of women in their childbearing years due to the gender imbalance in purchasing practice made the region unique in North America for having a marked excess of slave deaths over births.
Speculators preferred to purchase what they termed “young and likely Negroes” – mainly teenagers and young adults. They wanted men with the immediate ability to perform hard labor and the potential for a long work career. The merchants also looked for young women with many years of childbearing ahead of them.
Only about 5 percent of the males and 6 percent of the females sold were over thirty. Documentary evidence shows that with the exception of Louisiana, males between ten and twenty-nine years old comprised 72 percent of the trade but only 43 percent of the United States’ total enslaved population. Children under ten made up about 18 percent of the trade and most, especially the under-eights, were sold together with their mothers.
To be “sold down the river” was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying. Francis Fedric, who was born in Virginia and sold away in Kentucky, recalled the scene:
Men and women down on their knees begging to be purchased to go with their wives or husbands, … children crying and imploring not to have their parents sent away from them; but all their beseeching and tears were of no avail. They were ruthlessly separated, most of them for ever.
The experience of separation was traumatic. Traders bought selectively, without regard to family, picking individuals on whom they thought they could make most profit. Bills of sale show that they almost never bought husbands and wives together, and such records indicate that the trade would have disrupted one in five marriages of all slaves in the selling states.
Since the long-distance trade did not, however, break up the majority of marriages, the enslaved community could maintain a strong sense of family. The importance that the black population placed on families is shown by the fact that owners – as a means of coercion – constantly used the threat of sale and family destruction.
As well as spouses being separated by the trade, one-third of the children under fourteen were separated from one or both of their parents. John Brown from Virginia was about ten when he endured the misery of being sent to Georgia, far from his mother:
Finney agreed to purchase me by the pound. . . . A rope was brought, both ends of which were tied together, so that it formed a large noose or loop. This was hitched over the hook of the stilyard, and I was seated in the loop. After I had been weighed, there was a deduction made for the rope. I do not recollect what I weighed, but the price I was sold for amounted to three hundred and ten dollars. Within five minutes after, Finney paid the money, and I was marched off. I looked round and saw my poor mother stretching out her hands after me. She ran up, and overtook us, but Finney, who was behind me, and between me and my mother, would not let her approach, though she begged and prayed to be allowed to kiss me for the last time, and bid me good bye.
The pattern of long-distance separation that characterized the trade was hugely significant, both in the suffering that it inflicted on the individuals, the families, and the communities, but also for its impact on master-slave relationships. The emotional toll of this forced migration can be seen in the Southern papers that routinely carried advertisements seeking the apprehension of runaways. Vast numbers of these advertisements pointed out that the runaway was likely to be trying to get back to the place from which he or she had been sold – and where family still lived.
As profits were huge, free people were sometimes kidnapped for sale in the domestic slave trade. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the abduction of free people increased.
As slave catchers were allowed to claim fugitives in the North and take them back to the South, free people who could not prove their status became victims of unscrupulous men who declared they were, in reality, runaways.
Many free men, women, and children were kidnapped in Northern cities and sold in the interregional slave trade that took them to the Deep South.
For the forced migrants and the communities they left behind, the slave trade sent the stark message that the threat of sale and family separation would be with them as long as they lived. For a great many, then, the enduring result of the system was an ever-heightened distrust of their owners and an awareness that most whites did not think of them as people capable of real feelings.
The Slave traders
The trade has always posed problems for those seeking to portray slavery as a benign and paternal institution in which slave owners saw their main mission as “civilizing Negroes.” Long after slavery ended, conservative white Southerners still pretended that the slave traders had been social outcasts and that their business had been of minimal importance to Southern life. In his 1904 history of the trade, the Southern historian Winfield H. Collins wrote that their ill repute was such that “They were accounted the abhorrence of everyone. . . .Their descendants, when known, had a blot upon them and the property acquired in the traffic as well.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, traders were very often prominent citizens and respected leaders of their communities. Slave trading was not a poor man’s occupation. A coffle of forty slaves might cost the trader well over $30,000 in cash, a huge sum in the nineteenth century that is equivalent to about $600,000 today. Major traders nearly always came from wealthy planter families. The traffic in human beings made them even richer.
Some examples from South Carolina during the 1850s show the kind of social positions that traders held. The very high profile traders Alexander McDonald, J. S. Riggs, Thomas Ryan, Ziba Oakes, and A. J. Salinas served as aldermen in Charleston. Col. C. Weatherly of Marlboro District combined extensive trafficking with his role as a member of the state’s House of Representatives, later serving in the State Senate.
Major George Seaborn was another trader/planter and a gentleman of very high standing. In 1850, a financial agency reported that he was a “planter aged 50, v[ery] fine char[acter] and w[orth] in land and negroes some $20,.” He was also joint editor and publisher of the Farmers’ and Planters’ Magazine.
In the early decades of the trade, its speculators did attract some criticism in the South. Some feared that slaves from the Northern and middle colonies would bring with them undesirable ideas of freedom. Prosperous planters in older sections of states – sections where the system was long established and where planters no longer felt the need for new importations – resented traders who brought enslaved people into the newer, still-growing regions in their states. They were greatly concerned that any increase in the black population would undermine the prices of both crops and labor. Despite these apprehensions, they were quite happy to sell to traders as long as they transported their purchases out of state. Many planters also resented the profit gouging and crooked practices with which some traders were identified.
The traders’ high social status was deliberately concealed in the slaveholders’ propaganda efforts. The truth about “Negro speculation” would have made it impossible to defend the “morality” of slavery. As James Stirling, a Scottish visitor, observed in the 1850s: “The slave traffic was a sore subject with the defenders of slavery. . . . They fain would load all the iniquities of the system on the trader’s unlucky back.” Thus, the trader was invariably portrayed as an outcast and a scoundrel in pro-slavery novels and polemics, in marked contrast to the picture they painted of a righteous, humanitarian plantation owner who only sold slaves as a last resort to clear his debts.
T. Randolph’s 1852 novel claimed:
The slaves…were all purchased to remain in the district. Even among those planters who showed little concern for the ruined Courtneys, there was a sentiment of honor on this point. A trader who made his appearance was hustled away rather rudely by one or two present, so that after making a few ineffectual bids, he thought it prudent to retire.
Southern whites and their Northern sympathizers would pass down this self-serving view of slavery over many generations. It still resonates today. Guides routinely tell tourists visiting the grandly restored plantations throughout the South: “On this plantation they never sold any of their slaves,” and “they never broke up families.” This flies in the face of evidence that virtually all owners would have dealt with traders.
After the Civil War, chains of evidence that might otherwise have led historians to the trade were often deliberately broken. White Southerners, keen to invent and promote a history of the benevolent Southland, tended to write the trader out of history. In obituaries, biographical directories, and county histories, profiles of prominent citizens who had been slave traders tended to omit that aspect of their lives. When the notorious trader and prominent South Carolina politician T. C. Weatherly was discussed in an 1897 history of his county, his political career was referenced, but his slave trading went unmentioned. The death of the highly successful slave trader Charles Logan in 1903 was well covered in South Carolina’s newspaper, The State. He was remembered as one whose wealth had been accumulated through “speculative deals of various sorts,” and as a benefactor of the Catholic Church, a hospital, a school and to officials charged with preventing cruelty to animals. Without the faintest trace of irony, The State concluded, “Next to the care of children, kindness to animals is the mark of a good heart.” No mention was made of his slave-trading career.
Apart from the deliberate hiding of slave traders, the nature of surviving documentary records complicates the task of reconstructing the trade. Slave traders’ advertisements in antebellum newspapers provide hugely valuable clues. It is clear, however, that this source of evidence reveals only a fraction of the trade. This is shown by the fact that a very important trader like Ziba Oakes of Charleston, South Carolina, almost never used newspaper advertisements. For itinerant rural traders, newspapers often did not circulate quickly enough to be of great value either in achieving sales or in making purchases, and most found it better to approach their customers directly rather than through advertisements.
Official state records sometimes provide significant data. This is especially so for the coastal branch of the trade. Anti-smuggling legislation connected with the closure of the African slave trade in 1808 required coastwise shipments of human cargo to be officially recorded: this means that for the coastal branch of the trade we have a store of ships’ manifests which, although incomplete, is still massive. The vast bulk of the trade, however, was not coastal but instead operated in the countryside and in villages and small towns scattered across the South. Since in this land-based trade there was rarely any legal requirement to record trading activity, considerable effort is needed to reconstruct this highly dispersed traffic.
Some help in identifying traders is provided by occupational descriptions in the federal censuses of 1850 and 1860, but these descriptions are complicated by the fact that traders were often men of considerable wealth, with interests including planting and perhaps a general store. On a great many occasions, therefore, individuals known to have been active slave traders appear simply as “merchant” or “planter” rather than “Negro trader.” Furthermore, the census often abbreviated “Negro trader” or “Negro speculator” (see Glossary) to “trader” or “speculator” (see Glossary). A combination of census data, advertisements, traders’ letters, business documents, and court records reveals, however, a traffic of massive proportions.
The National Debate
Until the Civil War settled the issue once and for all, conflict raged between the northern abolitionists and the Southern traditionalists, with Southerners fiercely defending their right to own human beings. Abolitionists contended that the domestic trade was vital to slavery’s survival and exemplified the worst aspects of a totally corrupt system. Slaves, they argued, were inefficient workers because they lacked any positive incentives to work well. Plantation monoculture led to soil exhaustion and therefore slave-based agriculture was hopelessly unprofitable in the Upper South. The abolitionists believed that the slave system was kept alive in the Upper South only through the supplementary incomes gained from trafficking in humans to professional Negro speculators and from deliberately breeding and rearing people for sale.
Alvan Stewart proclaimed that the domestic trade was so important that ending it would break open “the great door to the slave Bastille.” Without the long-distance market: “The slaves of Maryland and Virginia would eat up their masters, and the masters must emancipate in self-defense to save themselves from destruction.” As for the Deep South, Stewart prophesied:
[In Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi] there is such havoc annually by death among the slaves of the great planters . . . that in less than seven years, if no slave could be imported into those southern regions, one half of the plantations would lie uncultivated for want of slaves.
The abolitionists viewed white Southerners as inhumanly callous and so deeply corrupted morally that in return for the traders’ cash they were happy to break up families and send individuals on long-distance forced migrations to an assuredly terrible fate.
Those who benefited from the domestic slave trade developed rationalizations to justify their activities. Throughout the years of the trade and for decades thereafter, pro-slavery propagandists maintained that owners only reluctantly – when under financial duress – resorted to selling their slaves and breaking up families. There is ample evidence available to refute this proposition. Traders’ bills of sale suggest that no more than 5 percent of their “stock” were acquired at debt, probate, or other court-mandated sales. Rarely were the owners staving off imminent financial crisis when they sold to the traders. They were, in fact, further increasing their profits.
Records also give the lie to another major claim propounded by slave-trade apologists – that the people they sold were most often recaptured runaways or “criminals” being punished for their transgressions. These groups comprised only a very small portion of the trade. Runaways were nearly always male, while the trade was made up of roughly equal numbers of men and women. The bodies of fugitives and “criminals” would have borne the scars of the lash, and traders would have regarded them as extremely risky buys.
Many owners lived under the delusion that they treated their bondspersons well and were loved and respected by them. They clung to this belief by embracing an absurd rationalization: black people, they claimed, were emotionally shallow and, unlike whites, did not have strong attachments to their families. The history of the slave trade lays bare the mythmaking that made up the “plantation legend.”
In the end, the abolitionist position on the slave trade was essentially correct about its size and about the character of its participants. At the same time, they greatly overestimated the problem of the planters’ debts. By buying into the myth that most sales were made to ease the owners’ financial problems, they underestimated the slaveholders’ voluntary participation in the trade. The abolitionists also exaggerated the extent of systematic breeding among the enslaved.
Slaveholders took great interest in the growth of their “stock” of people. But there does not seem to be any significant evidence to support an abolitionist claim that the selling states developed a system of specialist “breeding farms.”
The End of the Domestic Slave trade
The displacement of enslaved men, women, and children continued, despite much disruption, until near the very end of the Civil War, although exportation from Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware – all remained in the Union – was significantly reduced. Prices, expressed in constant dollars, rather than the highly inflated Confederate currency, declined dramatically. When New Orleans fell in 1862, a major urban market was lost to the trade. But the “Negro speculators” were nothing if not resourceful. Henry Badgett had been moving people from North Carolina to Georgia since the 1840s and was still reporting good profits in 1863. In Savannah, one leading trader described by contemporaries as “a bitter old rebel” did not evacuate his “human stock” until General Sherman’s army approached the city in December 1864.
In Virginia, the Omohundro brothers, Silas and R. F., supplied people to traders operating out of Richmond until at least 1863, as did the auctioneer, Hector Davis. In late 1863, E. H. Stokes was still buying people in Virginia and selling them in Georgia. But the dubious distinction of dancing the terrible institution’s last waltz probably belongs to veteran trader Robert Lumpkin. In April 1865, Charles Carleton Coffin, traveling with the advancing Union Army days before the fall of Richmond, found Lumpkin “shipping out fifty men, women and children. This sad and weeping fifty, in handcuffs and chains were [he declared] the last slave coffle that ever shall tread the soil of America.”
Ironically, the greatest significance of the trade was, in the long term, positive. This inhuman traffic did not succeed in crushing its victims. The enslaved were not just victims but people who resisted.
They clung to a sense of family and developed life-saving and heritage-preserving coping devices against a hostile white world. They learned to value themselves and their families in a society that looked upon them with loathing.
And they learned to build a community that would grow into an extraordinarily dynamic and creative force in the nation through which they were moved in chains.